The 64-mile Serpent Trail weaves a sinuous route between the surviving areas of heathland that once characterised much of northern Sussex. But the principal rationale for the trail’s name is not the S-shape made on the map; for these heaths are some of the last strongholds for Britain’s reptiles, including the very rare sand lizard and smooth snake, and the venomous adder. 

The Serpent Trail was opened in April 2005. A few months later, I was looking for a trail to walk after having finished the Chiltern Way, and had pretty much made up my mind to start the Greensand Way when I heard about this one, which conveniently ends where the Greensand Way starts in Haslemere (though most people walk the Serpent Trail the other way).

Walking the Serpent Trail also brings me close to countryside I was aware of when growing up on the West Sussex coast. But even to one who was once nearly a local, this isn’t a countryside that is known well.

Although the A3 and London-to-Portsmouth railway touch the trail’s western side, and there’s plenty of money about in many of the towns and villages, this is an area that has stayed well clear of some of the more obtrusive developments of the last few decades, and now sits proudly within the South Downs National Park.

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Though it’s not clear of forestry. There are a lot of trees around, and though many woods are of mixed stock, there are some ranks of uniform conifers too. At Lavington Plantation, trees were being cleared to restore heathland. What open heathland remains, however, is inspirational, little relics of a forgotten countryside, well worth maintaining, and well worth celebrating too, as this trail undoubtedly does.

from Black Down

The view from Black Down

The route

Though there is as usual an OS map above, I can’t resist adding this sketch map, my proudest creation in Photoshop and not at all bad at showing the wood without the trees, sort of.

Topologically, well over half the walk is in the catchment of the River Rother, a tributary of the Arun. From Petersfield (remember most people end here, not finish) the walk runs east, soon crossing the river, then skirting south of Midhurst to Fittleworth, where the river is crossed once more. On the northern side, the river is more distant as the walk enters the foothills of the Low Weald after Petworth, now heading west.

Sketch map

The walk turns sharp north-east (echoing the river) at Hill Brow, just before the old A3, now B class. It is then close to or alongside that road to Liphook, after which it turns south of Haslemere to the highest point of the walk (and all Sussex), Black Down (280m). A final northerly stretch takes you into Haslemere and for me the walk’s end, at the starting point of the Greensand Way on the town’s High Street.

The trail is almost entirely within West Sussex, though the first two miles are in Hampshire, it skirts the Hampshire border at Rake and Liphook, and finally enters Surrey for the last two miles into Haslemere.

Towns and villages

Petersfield is a market town originally founded by the Norman invaders in the 11th century, not far from the source of the River Rother. Midhurst is famous for polo at Cowdray Park and the dramatic Cowdray Ruins, which provide perhaps the most atmospheric backdrop to any bus station in England.

Petworth

Petworth

Fittleworth is a growing village, but Petworth to the north, not much bigger, has far more fame thanks to Petworth Park (now maintained by the National Trust), itself a result of a striking series of paintings by JMW Turner. After Petworth come villages of varying size – Tillington, Henley, Hill Brow and Rake – before the small town of Liphook.

At Haslemere, you enter London’s southern stockbroker belt; but the town deceives, for its Mayor-designate told me it is one of the most polarised towns in England: outlying estates with few jobs, wealthy homes where citizens commute daily to well-paid jobs in the City, and precious little in between.

Transport and accommodation

Fast train services on the on the London Waterloo to Portsmouth rail line call at Petersfield and Haslemere, and stopping trains serve Liphook. Pulborough, on the London Victoria to Chichester and Bognor line, is just over two miles from Fittleworth. You will see plenty of traces of, and hence regret the passing of, the former Petersfield – Midhurst – Pulborough branch; I can just remember its last freight services in the early 60s, waiting at the main line in Pulborough.

Bus services are about as conveniently placed as they could be, even by the relatively good standards of southern England. There are various routes from Petersfield to Midhurst, between them approx hourly, some passing through Nyewood. Midhurst, Petworth and Fittleworth are linked to Pulborough by an hourly bus which continues on to Worthing.

The quickest way from London to Midhurst is to pick up the hourly Guildford to Midhurst bus over the road from Haslemere station; it also crosses the route at Marley Common and Henley. Liphook has various buses as well as the rail station. Finally, Cocking Causeway is served by the hourly Midhurst to Chichester service. (Services may be less regular on Sundays and bank holidays.)

Petworth Old Station B&B

Petworth Old Station B&B

There is plenty of accommodation, but some of it might be pricey, in all the towns and at some of the pubs listed below. Midhurst’s good bus services would make it simple to base there and do the walk in stages each day. In Fittleworth, The Swan, a former coaching inn, looks particularly impressive as you walk past. Most unusual accommodation is at the Old Railway Station at Petworth (not actually very close to Petworth – it’s by the Badgers pub, south of the Rother on the A285), where you can stay in either the station house or converted railway carriages.

This is a great area for pubs, many strategically situated half-way on my stages. But beware – there have been losses since I walked the route, most notably the Keepers Arms at Trotton. I remember it for its third world interior and the best cottage pie ever, later it went gastro but obviously not well enough to survive. On the next stage, visit the Badgers, just after Duncton Common. The Horse Guards in Tillington and the Jolly Drover at Hill Brow were both good in very different ways, and I would have liked to have popped in to the Duke of Cumberland at Henley and the Black Fox just after Chapel Common. There is nothing directly on the Liphook – Haslemere stage, but I diverted down to the Red Lion at Fernhurst. Look out for the local Ballard’s beer, brewed at Nyewood in 2005 and now moved to nearby West Chiltington.

Serpent Trail day-by-day

Friday 23 September 2005. Petersfield to Midhurst, 14 miles (12 on trail).

Heath Pond

Heath Pond

The trail starts at Heath Pond, a mile from Petersfield station on the outskirts of town. It’s a low key start with little to mark the beginning, but set off north by the pond and you soon meet the first heath, an encouraging taste of what is to come. Alas, a bit of residential Petersfield then intervenes, and after a brief spell north of the Rother a trudge over farmland follows.

At West Heath Common, which has bronze age barrows, you share the path with the Sussex Border Path for half a mile or so, before empty-feeling fields on the way to Nyewood. From here to Trotton it’s metalled road all the way, passing the large Southdowns Country Hotel (now renamed Southdowns Manor), where the car drivers probably wonder what you are doing and why you need a rucksack. When I passed this way the Keepers Arms was a super pub, but as noted above it was first gastroed and then closed.

Not long beyond, up a sandy path, a genuine highlight, Trotton Common followed by Iping Common. These two commons are mostly open, dotted with gorse and birch, and between them they were large enough for Canadian tank regiments to practise D-Day manoeuvres. They feel very remote and ancient, a surprise to find in crowded southern England.

Stedham Common is now mostly forested, and there is some zigzagging through more forest before reaching Midhurst Common; it’s worth peeking over just to the left of the path to see the abandoned white brickfields through which the Petersfield-to-Pulborough railway once ran – the quarry even had its own rail system.

Midhurst Common

The white-brickfields on Midhurst Common

After crossing Bepton Road on the edge of Midhurst, the lane running south has good open views of the South Downs, before joining the A286 at Cocking Causeway, near the Greyhound pub. Midhurst itself is a mile north.

Friday 10 March 2006. Cocking Causeway to Fittleworth, 14 miles (13 on trail).

Early on, you pass Dunford House, once home to the great Victorian Liberal Richard Cobden. When I passed by, it was the training centre for the YMCA, but they flogged it off in 2019 and it’s now a commercial venue rather than a quiet spot for those who need to study. Beyond, the first highlight is Ambersham Common, before a tricky little piece of navigation in woods just after the turn beyond Graffham Court. On the (attractively) wooded Graffham Common, the big white house (‘eight luxury apartments providing elegant living in a natural setting’) of Millburgh Hall is a shock. Lavington Common, famous for spiders, is more open; indeed Lavington Plantation, just before it, was being cleared to provide another glimpse of how all the heaths used to be. Lunch was just downhill from the trail, at the Badgers Inn.

Graffham Common

Graffham Common

Lavington Plantation

Lavington Plantation

Resuming the trail, the countryside is more open and obviously farmed, and views of the Downs southward predominate around Burton Park. A little hamlet here, just a few houses around a green, forms a secret little community – indeed, the estate seems to have been founded as a Catholic retreat. Lord’s Piece Common at Broad Halfpenny, with its little pond and good open aspect, the path trending a little uphill, is especially pleasant; in summer listen out for the chirrup of the last native UK colony of field crickets.

A little bit of B-road bashing soon follows. It’s all worth it, though, with the entry to Fittleworth over the Rother, past the Swan Inn, followed by the day’s final heath, Hesworth Common, a little outcrop on the edge of the village that’s the best single view yet, a large swathe of the downs in the evening light, and continuing round to the sweeping wooded hills to the north of the Rother.

Hesworth Common

Hesworth Common

Thursday 13 April 2006. Fittleworth to Henley, 13 miles.

This didn’t get off to a good start, as I was kept waiting half an hour for the bus at Pulborough. Lithersgate Common is pleasantly wooded, Flexham Park more monotonously so; after Brinksole Heath there is an open-field descent with Petworth in clear view ahead, a sharp climb up from the brook leading to the town itself. It’s a bit like a smaller version of Midhurst, and even tweer.

Petworth Park, by JMW Turner

Petworth Park, by JMW Turner

Now you might think that the trail would take advantage of the National Trust land to cut across Petworth Park to Tillington, but not a bit of it; it sticks to the A272, one of the greatest missed opportunities in any trail I know. However you can be spared some of it if the lodge gates at 972214 and 967216 are open, and I’ve been told that the Trail’s official guidebook gives an alternative too. The approach to and exit from Tillington, whose church has a distinctive arched tower, are both very pretty. The Horse Guards is perfectly sited opposite the church, if a bit gastropubby.

You stay by the Petworth estate wall past Upperton hamlet, until stepping into its common (mostly wooded, though with a glimpse of open space to the left) at a folly. Lord’s Wood is a drag, but things improve around Leggatt Hill, the southernmost part of Lodsworth Common. Black Down becomes very prominent around here, and forms an impressive bulk.

I will never forget Bexleyhill Common, and not for its oak beech holly and yew; there are a few isolated cottages around 918247, and one of them had a dog ill-disciplined enough to nip my left calf. It was my first-ever dog bite, and I thought I knew all the tricks. The mile-plus of coniferous woods on the way into Henley look as if they might be a drag too; but today, drizzly, they felt almost Welsh, as I crunched along damp tilted hillsides. At Henley bus stop, on the main road, a florist’s van stopped, and the Mayor-designate of Haslemere offered me a lift to the station. We soon saw my bus, broken down before its return trip.

Unknown date 2006. Henley to Liphook, 14 miles (13 on trail).

A stage with three undoubted highlights. But first, a little green lane winds through Henley Common, before a sharp uphill pull through Northpark Copse to highlight one, the highest ground of the trail so far at Woolbeding Common. With the height, and sharp scarp slopes to the west, this is an excellent viewpoint. Below this, the rough parkland of Iping Marsh is a bit other-worldly, and there is a pretty meadow by Kingsham Wood.

After crossing the Hammer Stream, it’s up through woods, and a definite downlight: Fyning Hill, then home of Roman ‘Give me the Champions League NOW’ Abramovich. Later, the estate ‘was included as part of the divorce settlement between Abramovich and his second wife’, according to Wikipaedia. Whoever owns it, please let us have our footpath back – we have to endure a road mile for their privacy. Eventually, like all nightmares, it’s over, and a pleasant wooded stretch takes us too close to the Jolly Drover at Hill Brow to need an excuse to visit: it was just the sort of pub which needn’t bother but does.

Rake Hanger is highlight two. This ancient oak and alder woodland is naturally managed, trees dying in situ rather than being harvested, and it makes it one of the most attractive wooded stretches on the trail. You soon meet up with the old A3, now the much quieter B2070, but it’s still a trudge until highlight three, the extensive Chapel Common. First you circumnavigate a large meadow, and then you trek through heathered land reminiscent of Trotton and Iping Commons on day one. Then golf course and dull detatched houses are a bit of a bore, but take you to within a few minutes of Liphook station.

Much of this stage from Rake Hanger, and the following stage to Black Down, is coincident with the Sussex Border Path.

Woolbeding Common

Woolbeding Common

Rake Hanger

Rake Hanger

Chapel Common

Friday 18 August 2006. Liphook to Haslemere, 15 miles (11 on trail).

The day opens with the last three of the commons on this walk. Stanley Common and Linchmere Common come first, with attractive views back to the hills above Selborne from a bench dedicated to the environmental epidemiologist Edward Radford – a brave man who risked his career to tell of the dangers of both smoking and the nuclear industry.

Linchmere Common

Linchmere Common

A descent through Marley Common follows to the A286 just north of Kingsley Green; there is a bus stop here. The character of the walk then changes, past the back of houses and through the grounds of Lake House, until the climb to Black Down commences. It really does make sense to walk the trail in this direction; Black Down dominates the views so much from many parts north of the Rother that this final ascent makes a perfect culmination. National Trust grassland is reached at the lovely Valewood Farm House, but it’s back into woodland at the 200 metre contour. That doesn’t prevent many spectacular views, most notably from the viewpoint at the south of the hill. I dropped down from here to the Red Lion in Fernhurst, where I enjoyed its signature dish of poacher’s pot casserole (local rabbit, venison and pheasant).

Barbara joined me at the pub for the trail’s final few miles; note though that the Fernhurst detour makes this quite a long day for the unwary, with 2,400 feet of climbing over 15 miles. Back on the hill, the highest point in Sussex (918 feet) is just off trail at the trig point, hidden away in scrub. Eventually the path drops down to a little windy road, followed by a stretch through paddocks at the Surrey border, but there is time for one last delight in National Trust meadows at Swan Barn Farm just before the end of the walk, practically opposite the start of Greensand Way in Haslemere High Street.

Swan Barn Farm

Swan Barn Farm